Visual Neuroscience

Research Article

The phenomenal dissociation between coloration and object-hole effects in the watercolor illusion


a1 Dipartimento di Scienze dei Linguaggi, University of Sassari, Italy


The watercolor illusion is a color spreading effect at long-range diffusing from a thin colored contour juxtaposed to a chromatic one of higher contrast and a object-hole effect across a large area (Pinna, 1987; Pinna et al., 2001, 2003; Pinna & Reeves, 2006). The watercolored figure appears evenly colored by an opaque light veil of chromatic tint (coloration effect), with a clear surface color property spreading from the lighter contour. At the same time, the watercolored figure manifests a strong figure-ground organization and a solid figural appearance comparable to a bas-relief illuminated from the top (object-hole effect). It appears similar to a rounded surface segregated in depth, which extends out from the flat surface. The complementary region appears as a hole or empty space. The phenomenal properties of coloration and object-hole effects raise some questions. Can the two effects be considered relatively independent? Under what conditions can a possible dissociation occur? How does the dissociation of one effect, say the coloration, influence the object-hole effect and vice versa? To answer these questions two new effects related to the watercolor illusion were psychophysically studied: (1) the “uneven watercolor,” based on a modified watercolor figure without volumetric and three-dimensional properties but with a strong coloration effect and (2) the “watercolor surface capture,” where oblique lines within a watercolor figure appear bulging, curved in depth and segregated from those that are perceived as placed in the background or perceived through holes. The results of two experiments suggest that the coloration effect can be dissociated from the object-hole one. These results are discussed in the light of a simple summation hypothesis of the underlying effects composing the whole figurality. This hypothesis can suggest further investigation both in the phenomenal and in the neurophysiological domain.

(Received October 01 2007)

(Accepted March 08 2008)


c1 Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Baingio Pinna, Facoltà di Lingue e Letterature Straniere, Dipartimento di Scienze dei Linguaggi, University of Sassari, via Roma 151, I-07100 Sassari, Italy. E-mail: